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Michigan Battles its Way into Sweet Sixteen

Mo Wagner and DJ Wilson star as Michigan advances to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in three years.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to Sunday's second round match-up between Michigan and Louisville, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino likened John Beilein's Wolverines to the Golden State Warriors. The reference was not without merit. Michigan is among the nation's leaders in offensive efficiency, and in their 92-91 opening round victory over Oklahoma State, the Wolverines shot a preposterous 11-15 from beyond the arc in the second half to advance. A similar performance from long range, one would have thought, would be required for the Wolverines to upset the second-seeded Cardinals. Glancing at the box score of Michigan's 73-69 victory, you'd be forgiven for thinking that's exactly what happened. The Wolverines again shot the ball well, particularly in second half, when they connected at a 63% clip. But it wasn't a long range attack that did in the Cardinals. The Wolverines did their damage inside.

Let that sink in.

Playing from behind for most of the game, it appeared that it was all Michigan could do to stay within striking distance of high-flying Louisville. Pitino and his Cardinals seemed to send wave after wave of long, tall, athletic players at Michigan, including four standing 6'9" or taller. However, a white collar team no longer, Michigan never stopped battling. Driven by strong halves from DJ Wilson and Mo Wagner, Michigan hung tough and eventually tied the game with 1:40 left in the half, only to see the Cardinals go on a 8-0 run to take an eight-point lead to the locker room. Louisville increased its lead to nine in the second half, an advantage it still held with less than 15 minutes to play. But just as it did in the first half, Michigan kept battling.

With Big Ten tournament MVP Derrick Walton Jr. coming down to earth a bit, Michigan got contributions from others. Zak Irvin continued his strong play, scoring in double-figures for the 11th time in 12 games and adding timely rebounds and follow-up baskets at critical moments. Wilson played well throughout the game, finishing with 17 points, three blocks and a clutch performance from the free throw line. But it was Wagner who led the Wolverine attack, particularly in the second half. Riding Wagner, the Wolverines largely ignored the three-point line and attacked the rim. Wagner scored 17 of his career-high 26 points in the second half, 12 of which coming in the paint.

With Wagner leading the way, Michigan mounted its comeback on the strength of singles rather than home runs, ultimately taking its first lead since the game's opening minute with under eight minutes to play. Michigan maintained its edge the rest of the way largely due to Wagner, who continued to find his way to the rim. Then, after a key lay-up by Walton, it was Wilson, who in the words of the late Stuart Scott, was as cool as the other side of the pillow, in calmly draining four three throws in the game's final seconds to salt away the victory.

After defeating Luuisville, Michigan has now won 12 of its last 14 games, with two of those victories coming against fellow Sweet Sixteen teams and the last five against NCAA tournament teams. Such a run makes Michigan one of the hottest in the tournament, but more importantly, it shows that the Wolverines are finding ways to win. And with one of its grittiest performances of the season Sunday, Michigan showed that it doesn't have to hit from the outside to win.